Welcome to our discussion of The Reign of King Edward III. Up to this point, we've read and discussed 21 of Shakespeare's plays, and we will be entering a stretch where many of the plays we read will be most familiar. I wonder if that doesn't have something to do our relative paucity of comment on Twelfth Night, for which I want to apologize to Cindy who got us started with some very good questions. Is there much left to say when we get to the Macbeths and the Hamlets? I hope so, and perhaps that will be a good discussion starter (when we get there): how does one continue a tradition of vital comment with a play about which there has already been so much?
We also have put the bulk of Shakespeare's history plays behind us. Which is too bad. I found Talbot, the Richards, Henry IV, Hotspur, and Hal to be fascinating characters, great fun to read about as characters as much as historical figures. Edward III gives us the opportunity to have another conversation about history as drama and the stageability of English monarchical myth building; Elizabethan attitudes toward honor, chivalry, leadership, political expediency, their own past, their neighbors, and warfare; the value, joy, and disadvantages of teaching lesser known works; and the beauty of English language from this period.
Edward III was printed in 1596 by London bookseller and publisher Cuthbert Burby, although it was probably written earlier; the title page, which includes no author's name, declares "As it hath bin sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London." I want to set aside, for the moment, the lurking question of authorship (did he, or didn't he?) and focus on some qualities of the play.
First, you put the play down, and you are struck by the clear division that seems to split it into two parts. Acts 1 and 2 present a King Edward on the brink of scuttling his continental ambitions in favor of a rather squalid attempt to seduce the Countess of Salisbury. Acts 3, 4, and 5 present the heroism of Edward the Black Prince and the fall of France. You wonder: have I seen this sort of bifurcation before? Is there some theme or characteristic that joins the two parts, unifying them? Is this "bad" playwriting?
Second, upon reflection you might recall that on a number of occasions we've commented on the chivalric values present in Shakespeare's history plays, and how they have seemed to fare in the presence of an edgier, distinctly Tudor, realpolitik. Talbot fell, Falstaff mocked honor, Hal manipulated his own image in order to create a certain impression of leadership, the war of the roses foregrounded political intrigue over "precedents" (or the rules of chivalry). Edward III seems to uphold chivalry and honor. How does it fit into the historical attitudes we've already discussed?
Third, Henry V came off as a fairly patriotic hagiography at times. Edward III? Even more so? Less? What takes precedence here: history, the English myth, drama?
Fourth, one night, over a couple drinks, you have a brilliant idea for staging this sucker. Your producing director thinks you're nuts and willfully seeking the financial ruin of your theater. What argument do you make to convince her otherwise? (And what is your brilliant idea?)
Fifth, who wrote this play? How do we know? Does it matter? I assume this is a question about language. Is it?
So, colleagues, invocate some golden Muse
to bring hither a discussion bedeck'd
with jewels of wit and sparkling intellect.